Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Stirring Up a Hornet's Nest Rite of Summer

For eons, humans have known that insects called "hornets' sting. The word hornet might be based on the Greek word for the sound produced by a horn. It turns out that these insects produce an ominous sound in the nest when they are disturbed. This sound is recognized by many animals as a prelude to attack by stinging hornets.

Because of the ability of hornets to sting and the aggressiveness of members of the colony in defense of their home, these insects have developed a bad reputation. So much so that we use "mad as a hornet" as a descriptive term. And, if we do something that is likely to create a problem, we describe it as "stirring up a hornet's nest."

So what kind of insects are hornets anyway? Hornets are a type of wasp that constructs nests out of a paper-like material made from wood. Two common types are called "yellow jackets" and "bald-faced hornets."

Both insects construct ball-shaped nests as houses where eggs are hatched and larvae are feed to maturity. In the case of yellow jackets, the nest is constructed underground while the bald-faced hornets build the nest in the open. Nests of bald-faced hornets are generally attached to a limb on a tree. These gray-colored nests are natural works of art and can frequently be found adorning our homes as decorative items.

As aggressive as these insects are in defense of their nests, they are rather mild-mannered when away from home. Hornets generally feed their larvae protein in the form of other insects. So, the adults "hawk for flies," as described by Robert Frost in his poem "The White-Tailed Hornet." Hunting hornets seldom sting and away from their nest pose little danger to humans or other animals.

A hornet nest is established by a mated queen that has spent the winter hibernating in some protected place in the woods. After emerging from her winter slumber, the queen will select a nest site, begin to build a nest, lay a few eggs and tend thebabies by herself. When the offspring hatch, they will take over the duties of the nest, including protecting the place with their stings.

During the summer, hornet nests grow in size and number of inhabitants. So by August such nests might be home to several hundred hornets. It is then that stirring up such nests can be a dangerous thing, with so many sting-bearing guards aroused to defend the home front.

Most hornet nests go unnoticed for the first part of the summer. The nests are small and hidden in the leaves of a tree or in a hole in the ground. So it was with a bald-faced hornet nest fastened to a limb in a sugar maple tree next to our front porch this year. The nest was on a limb about three feet from the ground. That limb drooped over the edge of the flowerbed and the lawn. For four months I had pushed a lawn mower right under the nest without noticing the presence of the hornets.

My wife discovered the nest. Or rather, the hornets discovered her when she pushed under the limb to add water to the birdbath. Such action apparently provoked the hornets to action. She had stirred up a hornet's nest without trying and earned a couple of stings as a result.

With the grandkids coming to visit, the nest had to go. So the plan of action was to remove the nest at night when all the hornets would be home. Before that, though, I attempted to take a few pictures for the old scrapbook. The hornets were still mad, even a camera pointed their way resulted in attack flights.

That night the removal plan involved quickly putting the nest into a plastic bag, cutting the limb and closing the bag. Bag, limb, nest and hornets, now producing a sound in honor of their name, were quickly shoved into a freezer. Death by freezing was the sentence! The next day, we counted the number of hornets in the nest -- 276! It is easy to see why stirring up a hornet's nest is not a good thing.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox